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Ed. Dept. to Offer Some Waiver States Time, Flexibility On Teacher Evaluation

The U.S. Department of Education is telling some states that have waivers from  mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act that they will be able to extend that flexibility for an additional year, even as they continue to negotiate with the Education Department on revisions to their teacher evaluation systems.

Deb Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education outlined that flexibility in a letter to state chiefs Wednesday. Importantly, the flexibility would apply only to states with the authority to implement teacher-evaluation plans that fit the Obama administration's vision. 

In the meantime, the Education Department said it would look only at state progress on the other two pieces of waiver implementation—school turnarounds and implementation of standards and assessments—in making decisions about waiver extensions, which would apply to the 2014-15 school year. Some states' waivers have already expired, and the department said it would be announcing a handful of extensions soon.

Even after those annoucements, the department will continue to go back and forth with states that need to rework the teacher-evaluation portion of their plans. States that aren't able to come to an agreement with the department—or aren't able to follow through on their reworked plans—could run into difficulty when it comes time for waiver "renewal" at the end of next school year.

(It's headspinningly confusing, but the Education Department makes a distinction between the more streamlined waiver "extensions" it's getting ready to announce soon, and a forthcoming, and supposedly more rigorous waiver "renewal" process, which hasn't been outlined yet.)

What about the states that don't need the added help? States that don't need this added flexibility and already are planning to fully implement their teacher-evaluation systems in the 2014-15 school year will be eligible for a longer waiver "renewal" in the Spring of 2015.  (Just how long is a "longer" renewal? Department officials weren't ready to say, but noted that states can have their waivers renewed for two to four years.)

If all of this sounds pretty familiar, that's because the Education Department sent a similar letter to states back in May and promised more details to come. But there weren't many new specifics in Delisle's most recent letter.

Generally, Delisle told state leaders that the administration would work with state officials to provide "flexibility where needed for targeted, state-specific adjustments to implementation steps, timelines, and sequencing." For instance, some states want additional data on evaluation systems and student growth to determine exactly how their student-growth weightings will work, and would need more time to get that information before fully implementing all the measures by the 2014-2015 timeline outlined in the waivers.

The department is again pledging to flesh-out the details later on—Delisle told states they can expect "specific guidance" on this process in the near future.

Putting in place teacher-evaluation systems that meet the Education Department's parameters has been a struggle for some states. In order to get the flexibility, states must use outcomes on state assessments to inform teacher evaluations, differentiate teachers in at least three different categories, and use those ratings as a factor in hiring and firing. In a series of monitoring reports released earlier this year, the department found that six states were either not properly implementing their teacher-evaluation systems, while a dozen had systems that were still "under review."

So will this flexibility help Washington state, which had its waiver revoked earlier this year? The short answer is no. The department made it clear back in May, and again in Wednesday's letter, that not every waiver state would be eligible for this flexibility. In order to get the leeway, states would need to have the authority to put in place teacher-evaluation systems that meet the Obama administration's parameters.

Washington state had a law on the books that specifically allowed districts to use student progress on local tests—and local tests only—to inform evaluations. And the state legislature refused to change that law. Michigan has a similar law in place, and could find itself in a similar situation.  

Those that the department sees as "leaders" when it comes to teacher evaluation include District of Columbia, Florida, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, and Tennessee. (Yes, Washington, D.C., still makes the list for being an early adopter, even though its largest school district, the District of Columbia Public Schools, recently announced it was placing a moratorium on incorporating state scores into teacher evaluations as the district transitions to the Common Core State Standards.)

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